White Privilege and Transracial Parenting

Questions to ask when considering transracial adoption

I have written and re-written this entry many times, trying to find the words for a topic I feel so strongly about yet also feel so challenged in articulating those thoughts. I have been an adoptive parent for four years now and I am consistently humbled by the act of parenting. I am constantly learning, growing, and shifting to be the best parent I can be to my son. I believe this is part of what it means to be a parent. 

Many families created through adoption are transracial. For me, this is an amazing beautiful thing. These are families living out a personal ideal of mine where people are seen, loved, and valued for who they are versus how they look. In my ideal world, that would be all that was needed — Love.

I love my child. But, I don’t live in my ideal world. I live in a world that struggles with racism and increasing racial tensions. I live in a world where love is simply NOT ENOUGH to end centuries of racism imbedded in our culture. More personally, love is not enough to help my mixed race (African American/Caucasian) son navigate the world around him.

There are many articles and books that talk about transracial parenting that are insightful. Most of these talk about the things transracial parents need to do to support a positive racial identity. While I have found these articles insightful, inspiring, and thought provoking, I also find them lacking one key conversation — white privilege and internalized racism. The current culture in the U.S. is calling for all people to address issues such as systemic racism, white privilege, and our own internalized racism. While I believe addressing these issues is important for ALL people, it is of utmost importance for those of us who are parenting across race lines.

It is my belief that if I do not look at my own white privilege, I do a disservice to my son and my family. While I do not have all the answers or even concrete advice, I do have some questions that you can ask yourself if you are considering transracial parenting or are already in the process. These questions have emerged from my own experience as well as from transracial adoptees, transracial parents, and others who have shared their stories with me.

1. Are you willing to educate yourself on topics relating to race, racism, and the culture of your child’s birth?

Or will you assume that by attending cultural events, having a friend, spouse, or intentional community of diversity will be enough to help your child be proud of their race and develop the skills to navigate when racism presents itself? When I went into the adoption of my son, I wasn’t thinking of it as a transracial adoption. My wife is black, I am white, and our son is mixed race. My son is a reflection of both of our races, and as such I just sort of assumed my wife could support him in having pride in the black part of himself. I realize now the white privilege in that thinking. Navigating race and racism is a family issue, and as such I need to learn, become informed, and educate myself. I read books. I ask questions. I listen to stories and do what I can to understand what it feels like to be black in America. I will never be the expert or know exactly how it feels. What I do hope is, by educating myself, I will be able to listen to my son without making excuses or ignoring the realities of racism. 

2. Are you willing to explore your assumptions and the white privilege embedded in what you view as “normal” or not related to race?

My example comes from looking at the children’s books my son has. I realized that the shelves were full of my favorites from childhood and a few books we bought that talk about race, adoption, and growing up in a same-sex family. What was hard to acknowledge was that all of those favorite books from my childhood were about animals, or the illustrations had only white children. Are these great stories? Yes. Do I read them to my son regularly? Yes. Did I need to do more for my son? Yes. I want my son to embrace diversity and have an attitude of inclusiveness as he grows. I want him to be proud of who he is and see reflections of himself in the books he reads, and this takes work. I found it easy to find books focused on race and African American figures in history. But, my son is four. Books focused primarily on race are interesting, but he also just wants a good story – preferably one with trains or unicorns or whatever his current interest is. I have spent hours searching for books that are not focused on race but simply include illustrations of non-white people. I want racial diversity to be embedded in the things he loves, not separated. This takes work and intentionality. But when we read “The Snowy Day” and he sees a boy who looks like him, or we read “Corduroy” and he sees a teddy bear who finds a home with a young black girl — racial diversity is present. I love when he says, “he looks like me” or “that is like Mama Me” (what he calls my wife).

Mirroring who we are and who our families are is important. And even if your child’s favorite book is about an animal or a train, look around and you may be surprised to find ways to have these stories also reflect your family. For example, “Llama Llama Red Pajama” is one of my son’s favorite books, and the rap artist Ludacris’s rendition of the book is awesome. 

3. Can you name racism when it is present without making excuses?

When your child comes home from school telling you they made self-portraits in art class, but there was no construction paper in her skin color, will you acknowledge your child’s pain? Name the white privilege/racism present? or will you make excuses for the school and/or the teacher? In the case of a woman I know, she showed up the next day at school with a couple packages of multi-ethnic skin-tone construction paper and worked with the principal to start a diversity committee, so other children did not have to feel the same pain as her child in a public school geared towards white students.

4. Can you recognize that the “cuteness” of your young child will not protect them when they grow older?

When my son was an infant he drew attention wherever we went. His radiant smile, silky brown curls and his curious nature often received comments from strangers on how cute he was, how beautiful he was. There was one time, I was on my way to the grocery store when a white person literally came running across the parking lot to tell me how beautiful my child was. As a mom, I was flattered by the attention and that other people saw the same beauty I saw when I look at my son.  But, it was also odd. I also felt awkward about the attention he received. How was it that a world where the same white people who came running across the street to tell me how beautiful my child is could one day cross the street to get away from what they perceive as a potential threat — a black man? As our children age, they are perceived differently by the world and we need to prepare them for that.

5. Can you talk about race and racism?

We talk about race a lot in my home, and we talk about it in front of our son. He has seen my wife come home angry or tearful when she returns from anti-racism trainings where yet another colleague has told her she could never assimilate into American culture due to the color of her skin or some other racist belief. We talk in the car after shopping where she was followed around the store while I was not. He hears stories of racism and he hears how the feelings and the actions are managed. He does not fully understand these conversations now, but while I want to protect him from the realities of racism, pretending it does not exist will cause more harm in the end. Instead, I want him to hear that all the feelings are ok, that you can empower yourself by not shopping in a store again or working to educate others or simply have someone validate your experience and name it as racism. These are hard conversations, but we must have them. I must sit with my own discomfort and grieve the fact that my child will not have the same privileges I have based purely on the color of his skin. But what I also have to recognize is my white privilege is my strength. I was lucky enough to witness a profound conversation between a white friend of mine talking to her biological son who was grappling with racism and how many people he loves do not have the same advantages he does. My friend talked with her son about how his advantages of being in a family with money and white privilege gave him a responsibility to use those advantages he had to help those who did not have the same advantages. It was so simple and yet so profound. Be proud of who you are, enjoy the privileges you have but know that it is your responsibility to use your advantages to stand up for those less fortunate. My white privilege can be used to advocate, educate and empower those who do not have the same privileges.      

6. Are you willing to ensure that your child is surrounded by others who share your beliefs and fight for a more inclusive world?

While our children need to know we support them, they also need to see others who fight for them or share the same importance of valuing diversity and treating others fairly.  I have taken my son to protests and vigils related to the Black Lives Matter Movement.  He does not understand what they are all about, and is wary of the crowds at times, but it is important to me and my wife that he goes.  He is four, so my explanation is simple, I tell him that all these people have come out because they believe all people should be treated fairly regardless of who they are or the color of their skin.  I don’t know what he takes in.   What I hope is the first time he is called a racial slur, or followed in a store, he will have a lifetime of memories of large groups of people who were willing to stand up for racial justice and he will see the incident for what it is, an ignorant person being mean versus internalizing he is less that due to the color of his skin.

7. Are you willing to recognize and acknowledge when your own internalized biases or white privilege are present?

When you take your daughter shopping for a new bra for a prom dress and tell her she should get a nude colored bra so it will be less visible and hold up a beige bra can you recognize in that moment you didn’t really see your child? Can you then talk about how it is not right that “nude” as a color is based on white skin? Or apologize for not thinking about the differences in skin color and how that impacts clothing choices and also makeup choices? I remember going to a store in Maine with my wife to buy makeup for our wedding and watching as a white woman struggled to find foundation that matched my wife’s skin while she easily found make up for me. My wife laughed it off and we sought out a more black friendly place to shop, but if she was my daughter, could I have validated whatever feelings emerged had she gone shopping with her friends, and the instore make-over made her look like she had some strange skin disease because the cosmetologist had no idea how to do make up for a non- white client?

8. Are you able to find a way to cope with your feelings around race, racism, and parenting? 

We laugh and joke about race in our family a lot. While some may find our humor crass or others think we are politically incorrect, sometimes laughter is the only way to tackle really tough topics. Sometimes, you have to laugh or all you will do is cry.

Racism hurts. Transracially parenting is hard when you realize the hardships your child may face, based on the color of his skin, is one that you never had to face. Laughter, for us, eases the global heaviness and allows us to be in the lightness and fun of our family. It reminds me to focus on the present, to laugh and simply enjoy my family. So, while we have a book that has a refrain of “I am black and I am unique”, we also have a joke in our house that I am “white and common”.

I also seek out places where I can process my own feelings. I realize my wife has dealt with racism her whole life and has developed more of a “thick skin” for tolerating the ignorance in our world. I don’t have this thick skin and there are times where I am livid when she is followed around a store. I’m  terrified when she is being treated as if she is a drug addict in an ER, and I wonder if they will address the medical issue that brought her to the ER or deny her treatment based on assumptions about her due to  the color of her skin. While I talk to my wife about these feelings, I also need to find others to talk with. 

We all have different ways of coping with our challenges. As parents, and especially as transracial parents, I encourage you to find ways to cope not only with the challenges of parenting, but also the challenges facing the ignorance in our world.

9. Can you always see the race of your child but also not see it?

When I was in college, I did a lot of studies in diversity and the following quote from an article I read 20 years ago still resonates with me.

  “The first thing you do is to forget that I’m Black. Second, you must never forget that I’m Black.”
– Pat Parker, For the White Person Who Wants to Know How to be My Friend

When we are parenting across race lines, we often focus a lot on race in a desire to fully support our children. But there is simply so much more than race to focus on. While we must always remember our child’s race, we must also see all the parts of them. We may need to see that they identify more with their adoptive parents’ culture or could care less about why their hair is different. In putting a lot of emphasis on their race, we run the risk of not seeing the full person who is there.

Here’s a simple example: We love superheroes in our family. We live in a time with Black Panther, Miles Morales and other black superheroes. I was the kid who was told I could not be Superman because I was a girl, so I love that there are superheroes that reflect my son. I had visions of us all being the different Spider Man’s from Into the Spiderverse for Halloween … and then my son decided he is going to be Blippi. The overthinker in me is aware that my son is dressing up as a white man for Halloween. But that is overthinking. In reality, he is being the character from his favorite show. When asked why he likes Blippi, he will tell you he is “the best at playing”. And at four, being the best at playing is what is most important to my son.

As I write this blog, I am aware that these are my thoughts right now and they will change and evolve over time. One of the things my wife always says is “when you know better, do better”. I am aware I do not know all there is to know about being a transracial parent and I will make mistakes along the way. What I strive towards is an attitude of openness, of a willingness to grow and do better, to constantly be learning so I can “know better and do better”. While I may not get everything right, I know at the end of the day I have done the best I could and that I am constantly striving to learn more. I hope when my son is grown, he will look back and say, “my mom loves me, and she really understands who I am as a person”. To do that, I must clear my own biases, privileges and assumptions so I can be fully emotionally, physically, and spiritually present to my child. Not an easy task but one worth working for.

Written by Tara McAvoy, adoption caseworker for the George J. & Mary S. Mitchell Adoption Unit.